Man up and mediate, it’s not girly

The news last week that Liverpool FC staff have been given an ‘unacceptable language guide’ to help combat verbal abuse from fans has got me thinking about how important the words we use really are.  Reports say that phrases including  “man up”, “don’t be a woman”, “play like a girl” and “that’s gay” are all out on their ear as acceptable comments to make on the terraces, and that the initiative is intended to combat all forms of discrimination.

For me as a lifelong Liverpool fan (and a former steward at Hull City in my Uni days) I’ve heard some choice comments over the years, but no more than I would at any other club, and it is a little embarrassing to see the list of words the club has chosen to ban.  I can think of many others which I hear more often which may be more offensive and have not been included on the list.

However, I am certain the intention was to ban words for the greater good, and there certainly is something in the importance of how we communicate with others – and in mediation, this becomes even more obvious. When it comes to language context is important, and mediation is a great forum for dealing with this.

No two disputes are the same of course, but in my experience there are some well-worn themes that surface in mediations. One such theme is that one or more parties don’t feel listened to or respected, and in these situations, the “right” or “wrong” language can make a big difference.   I remember back to one of my very first mediations – I was assistant to the late David Poole, a very well-known and respected mediator who helped me a lot in my early steps as a mediator.  David and I were mediating a dispute over the sale of a catering business.  As is customary, we gave each party the opportunity to speak freely without interruption from the other side.  Part of the role of the mediator is control this session, ensuring that each party gets the opportunity to express themselves, and David left it to me to control this opening part of the mediation – it can sometimes be the stage in a mediation where the mediator feels more like a traditional pub door bouncer!

One or two minutes in to the session, the party speaking stood up and started shouting a screaming at the top of her voice “You bi*ch, you wh*re! You are a prostitute and a wh*re”.  She was spitting this venomously in to the other lady’s face.  Rather than sit back and listen, the abused became the abuser and retaliated with cries of “You are a liar and a cheat.  You are a thief, you have stolen my business”.

I looked at David.  Despite my training on the terraces I have never had to control the sort of language Liverpool are trying to ban during a commercial negotiation, so this was all new to me.  Luckily David was more experienced and whispered in my ear “Leave them, they will shout and settle down and we will move on soon”.  Like the man said, they shouted a bit more, got it out of their system and we did move on.

This was just one example of many in mediation where I have seen negotiations reach impasse because the language and tone of the parties is rigid, cold and gives the impression that they are closed off for discussion. I’ve also seen how the right words for a situation, like saying ‘I’m sorry’ rather than ‘I regret’, can mark the start of understanding and agreement.

On the other hand, one of the cornerstones of mediation is the freedom of the parties to have open, honest discussions – and telling someone what they can or can’t say inhibits that freedom. Another well-worn mediation theme is that big disputes can arise from small grievances that are left to fester rather than being dealt with. Restricting what people can say in a mediation situation could well prove counterproductive because the heart of an issue – like why one party doesn’t trust the other – isn’t approached.

I look forward to my regular visits to Anfield this coming season and seeing how the stewards deal with any language which falls foul of the new guidelines – and whether the legendary voice of Anfield, George Sephton, will be allowed to play “Fairy Tale of New York” during his Christmas season half time broadcasts.

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